ACCESS enrollment a turning point for many PPS students

One of Portland Public Schools’ most popular programs can finally open up its doors — just a crack — to meet demand.

ACCESS, the small but sought-after program for the top 1 percent of students, will be able to grow a bit by relocating this fall to Rose City Park School, three miles east.

ACCESS has been co-located at Sabin K-8 School in Northeast Portland since its inception in 2004, serving grades one through eight.

But the rapid growth of both ACCESS and Sabin has forced ACCESS to turn away several dozen students each year.

There were 190 applicants for the coming school year, but the school was able to enroll just 80. Many of those slots go to siblings of current students, so new families receive even less access.

A Tribune story in March wrote about the community’s disappointment that the Jefferson cluster enrollment rebalancing process this spring left ACCESS out in the cold.

Now, however, PPS officials have announced that occupying Rose City Park will allow ACCESS to increase as enrollment from 218 students to about 250, and the following year, ACCESS could grow to 300 to 320 students.

Parents say they’re grateful the district is committed to a modest growth plan, even if it falls short of the promise they said they were given at the school’s startup: that ACCESS would grow to 336 students by the 2005-06 school year.

“It’s distressing to spend a lot of time and energy filling out an application, which includes my son in the process since he has to write his own statement, and gathering test scores and letters, only to be wait-listed two years in a row,” says Miriam Zellnik, a Northeast Portland parent who’s been trying to get her son into ACCESS.

Zellnik says she’s talked with other PPS parents in similar situations, frustrated because they feel their children aren’t getting the education they deserve.

“TAG (Talented and Gifted) services at neighborhood schools are patchwork and, in some cases, nonexistent,” she says. “In the years since it was started, it looks from the outside like ACCESS has turned into a wonderful school for highly gifted children, a place where they are challenged and their special educational needs are met.”

Yet the fact that so many are being turned away — and will continue to be turned away, she says, “is a shame.”

The alternative PPS program is open to all eligible students in the district: those who score in the top percentile and are able to demonstrate on their enrollment application that their needs aren’t being met at their school.

Parents have been on a quest to find a new home for ACCESS for several years now. They say the program would be more cost-efficient if it scales up responsibly.

They filled a binder with heartfelt letters to the district about how ACCESS has filled the needs — educational, social and emotional — of their child like no other PPS program could.

“Our son was in serious trouble, in kindergarten!” one parent wrote in a letter to the district. “Without ACCESS, I have no idea what we would have done — perhaps pulled him from the district and home-schooled him rather than let him wither and lose all motivation for school. The research shows that highly gifted students whose needs are not met are at risk for depression and worse. We realize every day how lucky we are that our child instead has a place at ACCESS.”

Settled for a few years

In three years’ time, ACCESS’ fate will again be up in the air. Rose City Park, after all, is considered prime “swing space” for PPS — to house students during school construction or emergencies.

The once-beloved neighborhood school, at 2334 N.E. 57th Ave., was closed in 2007 at the hand of former Superintendent Vicki Phillips, during the districtwide K-8 transformation.

Rose City Park Elementary students moved into the Gregory Heights Middle School building; the merged school is called Roseway Heights.

The mothballed facility was first used for storage, then it housed Marysville School for three years after fire damage in 2009, until the remodeled Marysville campus was reopened this school year.

Rose City Park has the capacity for more than 500 students, and features above-average classroom sizes and ample extracurricular and recreational spaces, including a gymnasium, cafeteria, library, and auditorium.

The building received seismic strengthening as part of the 1995 bond, which included the addition of concrete shear walls and strengthening the connections between additions.

As early as 2015, when construction bond work begins on four schools, PPS will again need to tap Rose City Park as swing space to relocate students.

Roosevelt High is too far away and won’t use Rose City Park, but Franklin, Grant and Faubion K-8 potentially could use the space.

That’s why district leaders are not making any long-term promises to ACCESS. They say ACCESS will remain at Rose City Park at least through 2015-16 and then be included in the long-term decision making for the Rose City Park site.

Ultimately, their fate is intertwined with PPS financial and political realities, including the district’s planning for Talented and Gifted program services, a districtwide boundary review process, and additional work to balance enrollment in area schools, which could lead to the co-location of another school or program in the Rose City Park building.

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